Women & Leadership: 4 questions for The Cosmopolitan's Colleen Birch

Colleen Birch, third from left, receiving her HSMAI Revenue Professional of the Year award. (Colleen Birch of The Cosmopolitan receives HSMAI award)

Hotel Management’s series "Women & Leadership" has thus far featured two C-Suite executives: Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former chairman and CEO of Carlson, and Niki Leondakis, Commune Hotels’ CEO.

This month, we’re talking to Colleen Birch, SVP of revenue optimization for The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Birch, who has been with the resort since 2009 and previously spent 11 years with Caesars Entertainment, was recognized as one of HSMAI’s 2015 Revenue Management Professionals of the Year as well as one of HSMAI’s 2016 Top 25 Extraordinary Minds in Hospitality Sales, Marketing and Revenue Optimization.

In addition to her work at the resort, which includes leading revenue management and distribution policies and the customer relationship management team, Birch also serves as board chairman for one of the three local community organizations where she is active. She is also the mom of a 12-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl.

1. Do you feel the climb to your current role was more challenging than if you had sought a marketing or communications role where female executives are more common?

Birch: I’ve gotten to where I am, not because of my gender, but because I have a good head on my shoulders and I’m willing to work hard. The diversity of my skill set has also prepared me well for where I am today. I started at the front desk of Caesars Palace to fulfill a requirement for my UNLV degree. After graduation, I went to housekeeping and, after, to reservations and that was all because my mentor at the hotel told me that if I wanted a life in hotels—regardless of what my ultimate focus would be—I needed to understand the inner workings of a few key departments.

Housekeeping was never a department that I would’ve set my sights on, but it was among the most rewarding 14 months in my careers. I learned how integral the operation is to a hotel, but I also worked with people from all walks of life and who spoke many different languages. I credit this job with teaching me the people part of being a manager.

Now when I think about fluctuations in business demands, I know the importance of communicating that to housekeeping. But I also understand how occupancy translates to spending behavior across F&B outlets and casino gambling. I’m not only executing on the room side, but also trying to teach teams like the front desk staff to see through a revenue management lens. It’s very collaborative and I’ve been successful because my background allows me to create partnerships; I have automatic credibility that someone else may not have because they learned about operations in school and understand it theoretically. I consider myself an operator who understands revenue management and not a revenue manager who understands operations.

2. To what do you attribute your success?

Birch: It’s who I am as a person. During my early hotel days, I saw my mentor, George Markantonis (president and COO The Venetian, The Palazzo, Sands Expo & Convention Center), also take a genuine interest in people and then people who joined his team would work hard for him because they knew that he cared in a way that wasn’t just tactical and not just about the job at hand. So I really try to learn a little about everyone who I work with and figure out how to connect in a way that brings some levity to the conversation and that isn’t just business. At the end of the day, we all have a job to do, but I believe that I work best with those I know a little about and who know a little about me.

3. Given its size, Las Vegas’ hotel industry presumably offers more opportunity to women than other U.S. destinations. But do you see room for improvement?

Birch: There’s always growth opportunity here and I feel like the most immediate opportunities would be through mentorship. Unfortunately, there are not many female executives in C-Suite positions in this market. I would love to see more women in these positions, but I think that’s going to happen through mentorship and strong leaders. Some of the mentors that I’ve had have been men. So it’s not a male/female issue, but it’s about leaders who can provide positive and constructive feedback and who have paved the way before you. It’s incredibly important for executives and even mangers and directors to mentor the incoming class since UNLV is in our backyard. We have the opportunity to engage with students about careers in this field and it’s a shame when a UNLV graduate doesn’t consider an opportunity in Las Vegas.

4. Could you talk about how your community involvement makes you an even more valuable asset to the resort?

I’ve sat on the board of Junior Achievement of Southern Nevada for the last six years and became chairman on July 1. Our mission is to support the school system on age-appropriate financial literacy programs from kindergarten to 12th grade and that ties back to my business acumen and what I do at the resort. I got involved with the organization when my kids were young and wondered if I was having the right conversations with my kids about spending and wants versus needs. So I got involved.

Our property sponsors a school every year and we rally sixty “Costars,” as we call resort employees, and spend a day at the school teaching five Junior Achievement lessons. People at work ask me when we’re going back and that matters. I also put together volunteer nights at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission with my direct team and members of the operating committee. Now I also include my children because –at 10 and 12—they’re old enough to give back with me.

It’s about leading by example, at home and on property, which sounds incredibly cliché, but there are people who see me giving back and want to come along because they feel that if I have the time, they should find the time too. I love seeing our community involvement expand as more Costars get involved and I’d like to think that I had a little something to do with that.